Well, well, well . . . yet another politician has been caught wearing blackface.
In this case, it’s the famously “woke” and “culturally sensitive” prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. Technically speaking, photos surfaced of Trudeau in both “brownface” and “blackface” — in one case in Arab garb for an “Arabian Nights” event and another case in which he sang a Harry Belafonte song — although those distinctions really don’t change the nature of the offense. Inconveniently for Trudeau, these photos surfaced just a month before Canada’s Oct. 21 national election, which Trudeau already was struggling to win. Oops.
We in the United States —especially those of us here in Virginia — know all too well about blackface scandals. Just ask Gov. Ralph Northam or Attorney General Mark Herring. None of these blackface incidents is excusable, but some are more inexcusable than others. For instance, it’s easier to understand how Kay Ivey — now the 74-year-old governor of Alabama — could wear blackface as a college student in the 1960s than it is how Northam and Herring could do the same in Virginia in the 1980s. It’s always been wrong —wrong as in racist wrong — but the context of the times was certainly different in Alabama in 1967, a time when George Wallace was still governor just four years after standing in front of a schoolhouse door to block integration. By the 1980s, be it Virginia or Alabama or anywhere else, everyone should have understood the practice was offensive, yet we now know of at least two people who did not. It’s also easier to forgive someone younger than someone older. Herring, for instance, was 19 when he dressed up as a rapper for a college party in 1980. A 19-old then should still have known better but Herring is hardly the first person to do something stupid as a teenager. Fortunately, Herring is now a lot older and can be judged on his current record, for good or ill. Same for all the others.
Still, Trudeau’s offense is, in many ways, the worst of the bunch. Of all the blackface incidents involving politicians, his was the most recent (2001) and he was the oldest offender at the time (29). He also was a teacher at the time, so in a position of being a role model. Unlike Northam, who bobbled his response, Trudeau at least gave a straightforward apology although his apology only might have made matters worse. Trudeau blamed his “layers of privilege” for not understanding how wrong his actions were. (He’s the son of a former prime minister.) Commentators in Canada aren’t buying this, not on the left nor on the right. We’ll quote Lorne Gunter of the right-of-center Toronto Sun: “That is poppycock. You can’t be so privileged you don’t understand the insensitivity of blackface. (Although you can be so privileged that you believe you can get away with it.)” The general feeling among the Canadian commentariat seems to be that Trudeau isn’t a racist; he’s just a clueless lightweight who has skated into power on his family name.
Here’s some insightful commentary that says as much about the United States as it does Canada. Some have suggested that Trudeau should be excused because he’s French-Canadian and, well, things are different in French-speaking Quebec — there’s apparently no French word for “blackface.” This argument doesn’t go far, either. As the son of a prime minister, Trudeau was not some sheltered backwoodsman. He had seen the rest of the world. And at the time he dressed up as Aladdin, he was living on the Canadian West Coast in a city famed for its diversity — and in a country that has historically welcomed more immigrants, on a percentage basis, than the United States. Again, the Toronto Sun: “If ‘progressives’ are going to carve out a Quebec exemption to cover off their boy Justin’s behavior, they also have to carve out a Mississippi exemption for people who are the product of southern U.S. culture where flying the Confederate flag doesn’t carry the same stigma.” Think about that awhile, will you?
Ultimately, Trudeau is Canada’s problem, not ours. Still, the persistence of white people wearing blackface long after minstrel shows went away — be it in Virginia or Vancouver —suggests that maybe, just maybe, there’s a problem here worth talking about. It’s not just blackface, either. A few weeks ago, “Saturday Night Live” announced it had hired the comedian Shane Gillis as part of the cast for the new season — then fired him after it was learned he had used racist and homophobic slurs as recently as 2018 in a podcast. Gillis’ defense was as weak as Trudeau’s: “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss . . . I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said. My intention is never to hurt anyone, but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.” Umm, using slurs isn’t pushing “boundaries,” unless the boundary you’re pushing is flat-out bigotry. Why is that so hard to understand? Gillis says his intention was “never to hurt anyone.” Trudeau, Northam, Herring, Ivey and all the rest probably didn’t intend to hurt anyone, either. Yet the things they did — be it donning blackface or, in the comedian’s case, using slurs — is, by definition, intended to mock someone of another background. Again, why is that so hard to understand? To be fair (and balanced), Northam and Herring say they were intending their blackface as a tribute to African-American performers they admired — Michael Jackson and Kurtis Blow. Still, umm, no. That’s not how it’s done.
This isn’t a matter of “political correctness,” a phrase that conservatives like to denigrate. Instead, it’s a matter of an old-fashioned value, which means it’s something conservatives ought to embrace (and liberals, too). It’s called politeness. That’s something we Southerners used to pride ourselves on. There are a lot of things in Southern history and Southern culture we shouldn’t be proud of, but this isn’t about those things. This is about simply being decent neighbors. Why would anyone go out of their way to offend or insult someone? Yet it seems everyday people do just that. In some ways, the only thing that distinguishes Trudeau and Gillis from the daily cesspool of social media is that they’re famous people who get more attention than the ordinary internet troll. Pleading ignorance, as Trudeau has done, or pleading no ill intent, as Gillis has done, aren’t acceptable defenses. This isn’t 1919. It’s 2019. Shouldn’t we be behaving better now?